OverShepherding

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Disciple-Making

The imagery of shepherding is widely used in the Bible, from Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd to the story of the shepherd seeking out the single lost sheep that wandered away.

Shepherding/pastoring is one of the five leadership gifts listed in Ephesians 4.11. It’s typically understood as ongoing care and concern for people, meeting needs, demonstrating love, strengthening weaknesses and searching for those who might be lost or wavering in their faith.

As a concept and practice in the church, Shepherding is absolutely essential. Shepherding is also the predominant ministry approach for church as we know it in the West—along with its close cousin, teaching.

“As a concept and practice in the church, Shepherding is absolutely essential.”

So…?

You might be asking, “Okay, Captain Obvious, why is this important?” Because the shepherding-teaching combo is the default lens we use to look at discipleship. We use shepherding- and teaching-related tools and processes to disciple another person—and almost exclusively so.

While this is not inappropriate, it can be limiting if shepherding and teaching is all we practice. If our priority in discipleship is to care for and teach our disciples, then we will try to protect them from potential danger and focus on increasing their knowledge and understanding.

 

Helicopter Discipleship?

Over-prioritizing these approaches creates an over-protective culture that builds hesitancy and a lack of confidence in our disciples. This culture can become the ministry equivalent of helicopter parenting, where disciples’ activities and decisions are monitored and controlled by their mentors. They’re subtly taught not to venture out into unknown and potentially dangerous situations without approval or authorization. They’re unconsciously convinced they don’t know enough yet, and they become more concerned about what they don’t know than what they do know.

This over-shepherding culture is all well-intentioned. After all, the heart of those gifted as shepherds and teachers is to protect, care for and instruct their disciples. But if shepherding is our only frame of reference for making disciples, the disciples we produce will be risk-averse, dependent upon others rather than upon God, lacking confidence, unable to self-feed and internally focused.

Which describes many believers in church as we know it.

“A culture that over-prioritizes shepherding and teaching … can become the ministry equivalent of helicopter parenting.”

Think about it: What if we used this approach to train people in roles like, say, airline pilots? Pilots fly their first solo after only a handful of hours of training—basically, where they know how NOT to crash the plane. They learn to fly, generally speaking, by flying. This begins early, and the best pilots never stop training. Airline pilots are required to spend time in simulators on a regular basis, continuing to train for situations they might encounter. It prepares them to be effective.

The desired outcome of our effort is a disciple that will be capable of discipling someone else without being dependent upon us. The sooner that happens, the sooner we will see the fruit of disciple-making multiplication.

 

An Alternative Example

The apostle Paul found himself in Corinth on his second missionary journey, where he met Aquilla and his wife Priscilla. They were Jews who had come to Corinth from Rome, and Paul discipled them as they lived and worked together as tent makers.

After a year and a half, Paul took Priscilla and Aquilla (and probably others) with him to Ephesus. After speaking in the synagogue there, he continued on his journey and left Priscilla and Aquilla behind to lead this new church in Ephesus.

After Paul left, Apollos showed up from Alexandria (Egypt). He was knowledgeable in the Old Testament and taught convincingly that Jesus was the Messiah—even though all he knew about was John the Baptist’s message of baptism of repentance. Priscilla and Aquilla then connected some of the missing dots in Apollos’ understanding about who Jesus was and what it meant to follow him in faith. Though he could have stayed in Ephesus (which became one of the most influential churches in Asia), he went to Corinth where he was able to help the believers there in their faith.

“The desired outcome of our effort is a disciple that will be capable of discipling someone else without being dependent upon us.”

This is a great picture of the disciple-making approach in the early church. From Paul (and, most likely, Barnabas’ investment and mentoring of Paul before that), to Priscilla and Aquilla, to Apollos, to the believers in Corinth, we see the trend of equipping people quickly to take the lead in discipling others. We see a willingness to quickly engage in equipping others for making more disciples, with whatever degree of knowledge or experience the person has. We see the willingness to go where the spiritual need is, rather than staying where it’s comfortable in order to learn more.

 

Putting It Into Practice

Make no mistake: Shepherding and teaching are good and essential. I’m not suggesting we discard them, only balance them with training and equipping to go and make more disciples. Our goal should be training people to pass the baton of the great commission to the next generation of disciples.

These days, there is a growing emphasis on discipleship in the church—which I applaud! But if raising the bar on discipleship only results in shepherding more fervently and teaching more intensely, the result will be disciples who’ve been over-shepherded and over-taught.

And guess what they’ll do when they try to disciple someone else: Over-shepherd/over-teach, and under equip/train.

We need disciples who are trained to make other disciples, who will then make even more disciples. We need this process to happen purposefully and intentionally, with every people in every place, at a rate that creates disciples faster than the population is growing.if raising the bar on discipleship only results in shepherding more fervently and teaching more intensely, the result will be disciples who’ve been over-shepherded and over-taught.

“If raising the bar on discipleship only results in shepherding more fervently and teaching more intensely, the result will be disciples who’ve been over-shepherded and over-taught.”

Only then can we be in a position to complete the Great Commission.

Damian Gerke is on the leadership team of 1Body Church. He is married to Cheryl, his wife of 30+ years, and they have three grown children.

Damian has a diverse background that includes leadership and development coaching, vocational pastoral ministry and even working as a design engineer in the aerospace industry. He is the author of In the Way: Church As We Know It Can Be a Discipleship Movement (Again) and Taking the Lead: What Riding a Bike Can Teach You About Leadership. He blogs regularly about faith and church leadership issues here at 1Body.church, as well as leadership and life issues at DamianGerke.com.

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